Some 40,000 veterans at risk of homelessness could see federal support services disappear next week unless lawmakers quickly extend pandemic protections that have been caught up in a congressional funding fight.
If the funding measure does not pass by May 11, tens of thousands of veterans will be cut off from services like free rides to Veterans Affairs clinics, telehealth medical services and increased financial assistance for rent costs.
“One day, these folks will be able to get from homeless shelters to medical centers for care, and the next day they won’t,” said Spencer Bell, policy analyst for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “You’re talking about people who don’t have cars or ways to get there. We’re up against the wall here.”
Veterans Affairs officials and community activists have been warning about the deadline for weeks, but have been unable to convince lawmakers to pass a solution. Now, with just seven days left before the national emergency related to COVID-19 ends, a pair of senators are offering last-minute legislation to stave off the problem. A similar House attempt has already failed, underscoring the difficult path ahead.
The legislation — introduced May 4 by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — extends a host of COVID-19-era authorities given to VA officials, passed at the height of the pandemic to ensure veterans would continue to receive support services amid office closures and quarantine restrictions.
Under the plan, VA would be allowed to continue online conferences between veterans and administrators for health care visits, welfare checks and other case management issues. Free transportation would continue to be provided to veterans without personal vehicles or access to reliable public transportation. Higher rates for housing stipends and clothing allowances would also remain in effect until 2026.
The legislation also includes an option for virtual home visits for veteran caregivers, who must periodically check in with VA staff to confirm the health and welfare of their vets. The program is set to return to in-home visits only if the authority is not approved.
Tester called the services “a critical lifeline” and pledged in a statement to move the legislation “across the finish line as quickly as possible.”
VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal had warned in late April that if the authorities are not extended past May 11, veterans who rely on the assistance will suffer.
“They’re depending on this,” Elnahal said. “We’re talking about authorities that have allowed for 750,000 free rides for veterans since the start of the pandemic. We really need this, and we need Congress to help out with this.”
VA officials say the money needed to keep the programs running amounts to a few million dollars and is already covered in available funds within department budget accounts. However, language included in last year’s Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (which is not connected to the pandemic authorities) has created technical accounting problems regarding the potential costs of new veterans legislation.
That was the cause of the failure of the proposed House fix. During a April 28 legislative mark-up, Republican leaders rejected a measure to extend the authorities because it ran afoul of chamber rules regarding new spending and budget offsets.
Whether the Senate bill can get around those issues is unclear. House and Senate leaders met with veterans groups on Monday to discuss the problem, but have not offered any long-term solutions. Other veterans bills have advanced in both chambers despite the accounting issues, but only after significant behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members are expected to debate and advance the new bill next week, just a few days before the pandemic authorities expire. The measure would need to be fast-tracked in the House and Senate to reach the president’s desk before Thursday night, and a handful of lawmakers could derail the process with related or unrelated objections.
Bell said community leaders are just now trying to find alternative aid for the veterans who could be hurt by the vanishing support services.
“There’s not really a plan, because everyone thought that Congress would have handled this by now,” he said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.